To preserve and explore the archaeology of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem through research, education, and public programming.
1) To further archaeological research and education, and increase the understanding of the Jackson Hole area and Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem within a regional, national, and international context.
2) To decrease the opacity between academic archaeological research and the public.
3) To engage non-academics, students, and the general public in archaeological research, prehistory, and in understanding and appreciating Native American culture.
4) To research, test, and develop innovative research methodologies, field techniques, and data sharing.
Historically, mountains have been interpreted by archaeologists and anthropologists to be marginal or inhospitable environments that were generally unimportant to prehistoric people. However, during the past decade, researchers have discovered a surprisingly rich archaeological record at high-elevations in the Wind River and Absaroka Mountains of Northwestern Wyoming — in the heart of the Greater Yellowstone region.
These discoveries have led to an increased academic interest in prehistoric alpine adaptations on a local, national, and international level. They show, in contrast to past belief, that high-altitudes played important roles in the lives of prehistoric people. In fact, we have learned that entire families spent summers in villages located above 11,000 feet in elevation. In the Wind River Range alone, 18 prehistoric high-elevation villages, discovered since 2006, have virtually relabeled how we envision alpine environments as an archaeological and cultural landscape.
In addition to large residential settlements, alpine archaeology in NW Wyoming and the Greater Yellowstone has produced other significant archaeological discoveries, including frozen artifacts such as wicker baskets, Paleo-Indian dart points, and spears thawing from ice-patches. Archaeologists have also found that because high-elevations react severely to climate change, they are one of the best locations on earth to track the relationship between people and changing environments cause by factors such as global warming and cooling.
To date, the majority of field research in alpine archaeology has occurred in the Great Basin, or has focused on the Eastern side of the continental divide in Wyoming. Given the scope and scale, however, of those archaeological discoveries above 10,000 feet, made in the past decade, and considering the vast areas remaining to be explored, Dr. David Hurst Thomas, Curator of North American Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, has now labeled alpine archaeology in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) as a whole “the focal point of North American anthropology in years to come”.
In addition to high-altitude studies, GYE is fascinating to archaeologists for a variety of other reason as well. Geographically, this region marks the location where four key geo-cultural zones, the Intermountain, Plains, Great Basin, and Plateau, overlap. Historically, it is also home to a significant number of Native American tribes and is proving instrumental in understanding the prehistoric spread of the Numic language. Numic speaking peoples include the Shoshone, Ute, Goshute, Piute, Mono and other tribes.
It is ironic that while the GYE has been identified by nationally and internationally respected scholars , Teton county is amongst the least archaeologically researched of any county within the state. While several contract or ‘CRM’ archaeological projects have been conducted since the 1970’s, less than a dozen hypothesis-driven research projects have ever been completed in the area. Equally important, much of this work has not been published and is only available in narrowly circulated technical reports that are not easily accessible to researchers, students, or educators. While the geology and climate of NW Wyoming allow for high-preservation of archaeological sites, the effects of global warming on sites and/or artifacts means that they are in danger of being destroyed by ice-patches melting and forests burning from beetle infestations. It is, therefore, crucial that archaeological explorations of the GYE increase exponentially before the contexts of artifacts and sites are lost.
The goal of the Jackson Hole Archaeological Initiative (JHAI) is to further the archaeological knowledge of the Teton and Greater Yellowstone region while there is still time to conduct the field research which will help us understand and explore the region in a deeper, more comprehensive manner. This will involve promoting community involvement, partnering with local schools and informal learning groups (such as Boy Scouts), as well as collaborating with federal and state agencies.